Pros: Price - performance, compact size, power to drive anything, transparent sound, light and well designed
Cons: Gimmicky features, inconvenient gain adjustment and a slightly lean sound
Big things come from small enclosures – The iFi Audio iCAN SE
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with iFi Audio in any way nor am I being paid for this review.
While not as established as some of the front-runner audiophile brands, iFi Audio is perhaps best known for their small yet affordable range of products, including the popular Nano line, spanning products like the iCAN and iDSD, serving as tiny portable amplifiers and DACs respectively. Further on offer is a range of useful accessories, such as the iPurifier and iPower, which both serve to isolate circuits from external negative influences of dirty power. The iCAN SE, hails from the “largest” Micro line, which offers small desktop solutions that promise to bring excellent performance in compact sizes at low prices. iFi also make sure they are buzzword packed by coining up bold, exotic features such as Class-A TubeState, DirectDrive or 3D HolographicSound. Boasting some of these and retailing for a relatively modest 299$, this Special Edition iCAN promises a lot for less. Intrigued with my eyebrow raised, I asked iFi for a review opportunity and they complied. So with my thanks and without further ado, let’s hear the truth!
The packaging was standard business as I discovered when a smaller-than-expected shipping box graciously landed on my door step, kindly sent by one of iFi’s local dealers. Slightly reminiscent of Apple-style packaging, I slid the box out of its paper shell and lifted the top lid to see what’s inside. Underneath the compartment hosting the amplifier, I was greeted by a plethora of accessories not expected at this price, spanning nice looking sets of RCA and 3.5mm interconnect cables, the taunted linear power supply, manual and warranty cards, a fine adjustment tool, a ¼ headphone adapter as well as four small rubber feet! Now, this is what I call accessories! It’s literally everything to set you up and then some. In a time where including a power cord is slowly becoming a novelty and everything comes at an extra, this array of accessories from a budget product I consider very impressive to say the least.
Overall design & build quality is pretty outstanding. The first thing that positively stands out are its miniature dimensions. This is the smallest desktop amplifier that I have ever tested, measuring less than 16 x 7cm (6 x 3") across, so you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a portable unit. Also weighting just over 200g (0.4lb), this practically weightless, all-aluminum pipsqueak takes the lightest footprint of all my audio devices. From left to right, on the slightly curved front plate, sits a smooth volume pot, with two HolographicSound and XBass (more on those later) switches facilitated next to it, with a traditional ¼ headphone output awaiting us by the end of the right edge. On top we have the signature iFi logo engraved, along with three green status LEDs, each for power, DirectDrive and signal. On the back we get two sets of inputs, RCA and 1/8, and a power input for the proprietary iPOWER external power supply. The gain is adjusted via dip switches, which are located on the bottom of the unit and even though a schematic is printed right next to them, it took me a bit to figure it all out. Although slightly inconvenient, the adjustment range is solid providing a gain selection of 0, 12 and 24dBs. Coupled with watts of class-A power on tap, it pretty much guarantees enough swing for all but the hungriest of headphones.
For music listening, I used my newest headphone addition, Mr. Speakers Ether 1.1, which offers an extraordinarily balanced presentation and a signature I enjoy quite a lot. As I will discuss in more detail, this amplifier should work well with most headphones and sources and contrary to its size, provides as much power as some many times bigger, more expensive offerings. One thing to point out is that iFi’s solution to keep the footprint smaller is a proprietary linear power supply, which lacks standard grounding, introducing a constant hum into the chain which I was unable to remedy. Curiously, it only introduced noise to other amplifiers in the circuit, while the iFi itself remained dead silent.
As for what kind of sound to expect was a bit of an enigma for me as I read through iFi’s exotic list of features. On one hand DirectDrive promises amazing transparency, while on the other TubeState technology claims to replicate the way tubes amplify audio to create a warm and spacious sound. I do agree with the former and the iCAN indeed is the most transparent amplifier that I ever had here, revealing minute details that others failed to show with the same clarity. With regards to TubeState, I will simply say that the Liquid Carbon is the most tube-like amp that I’ve had in house and that the TS does not sound anything tube-like at all. While on the same page, let’s discuss the effects of HolographicSound and XBass. They both offer 3 settings, bypass, + and -, where + adds the desired effect and – reduces it to less than bypassed. According to iFi, they should enhance / shrink the soundstage or add / subtract the right amount of bass, by means of a sophisticated circuitry built within. However, in practice they turned out to be mere convenience extras, sounding like average treble and bass boosts respectively. The issue I take here is that most of these features are touted as technical marvels that in reality never actually happen and represent something that does not justify the grand words put behind them. So, in the future, I would appreciate if iFi cut back on fancy-smanshy marketing descriptors on their website to be a bit more reasonable in managing expectations. In my opinion, the iCAN does not need a dozen of features to be perceived more appealing and there is a point where some of these could be taken as somewhat deceptive or misleading.
With that off my chest, let’s go back to juicy-soundy stuff. The iCAN proves a solid performer from top to bottom, where words like neutral, even and reference sprang instantly to my mind. The overall bass is very linear with excellent differentiation and extension. The mid-bass and upper kick also sounds very adequate, not lacking in any way compared to bigger amplifiers. Lower midrange is a bit less grippy, smooth all the way to upper midrange, with tiny hints of compression here and there, manifesting in slightly digital sounding cymbal crashes. Treble is smooth, but extends naturally almost as far as my treble-happy Audio-gd. The iFi offers an incredibly layered and spacious presentation, where every sound cue is easily picked and located. In its detail retrieving capabilities the iCAN goes beyond its competitors. The one undesirable trade-off that I perceive is a slight constraint of dynamic range and what I would describe as lean sounding, where nothing ever quite gets spotlighted. The areas where the other amplifiers bring hints of extra punch or air, the cool and collected iFi does not, producing a sound slightly less engaging. Regardless, the iFi stays far from embarrassing itself in any way and these are just minor shortcomings in an otherwise exquisite performance. Though as should be clear by now, those hoping to find any added richness of tubes in this solid TubeState offering will have to look elsewhere. Probably to real tubes.
Now, to compare to my favorite amplifiers:
Head to head with the Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon (599$ original, 799$ second run) – The Cavalli Liquid Carbon is what I was initially expecting the iCAN to sound like. However, these two amps can’t practically sound further apart. The LC gives a dynamically rich sound with potent oozing bass, encapsulated in an intimate soundstage. It also happens to be one of the less revealing and detailed offerings I have had the opportunity to hear, with its greatest weapon being rich, natural and warm sound that teases at what the bigger and pricier Cavalli models have to offer. The vocal presentation is amazing, with bass hitting as hard and deep as anything. It is a joy to rock out to, but those looking for a detailed and neutral sound, the iCAN gets my nod. It offers better separation, is much better at revealing micro details, offers a more neutral and realistic soundscape where instruments evenly pan across a spacious, holographic stage. The treble extends noticeably further and reveals more information. The Carbon is the go-to amp for many Sennheiser HD800 lovers and others who like spacious, neutral to bright sounding headphones, as it provides any extra desirable warmth and intimacy and complements their traits perfectly. And although something like my Ether works great with both, for the wider range of headphones the iCAN shows to be the preferable partner. Unless you just love to rock out and want to bang that head all day. Then by all means get the Carbon, or save for a Cavalli LAu. The iCAN is about half the size of the Carbon, for inquiring minds.
Versus the Jazz (325$ standard / 405$ for ff version) – For the differences between the ff and non-ff versions I go into more detail in my review at Headphone.Guru (http://headphone.guru/a-budget-blast-from-germany-meier-audio-corda-jazz-and-jazz-ff), where I compared them side by side. For the purpose of this review, either model will do as the sound signature does not deviate much. They also do happen to be the closest match for the iCAN, where there is relatively little that separates them in terms of signature. The iCAN has an edge in detail retrieval and instrument placement but it lacks a bit in dynamic reproduction, where the Jazz sounds just a tiny bit more engaging and snappy. As extra, the Jazz does offer a surprisingly well implemented cross-feed function, which is useful with hard left-right panned music. In terms of value, these go as close as any other pairing here. One offers better detail retrieval and a third smaller form factor while the other sounds just a hair more lively, with a useful CF function. Given their price, I could happily stack either on the top of my desk next to the bigger boys as they both punch high above their price tag. It really just boils down to which of their traits are more important to you.
Pitted against the Audio-gd SA31SE (525$, discontinued) – And here in comes the amplifier that has been with me the longest. This now discontinued Audio-gd product which I hope to finally formally review in the near future, has been a reference level amplifier for me since the wee days of dipping my toes in this audiophile ocean. It’s a big and bulky amplifier, stuffed to the brim with parts and a huge R-core transformer and which to me represents one of the Chinese company’s best for its price. How does the iCAN fare? Well, it depends. Just like with all the other amplifiers it competes in most things and doesn’t really do badly anywhere else. Its consistently top performing area has been the way it evenly places and pans all instruments and other cues in its vast soundstage and just how remarkably well balanced, clear and present they all remain all the time. The Audio-gd gets close but it doesn’t quite match the spaciousness. In vocal reproduction, the SA31SE shows added clarity and extension, making voice stand out every time in a mix. Whether that is accurate or true I leave for interpretation but I do like it as it also adds an airy quality to instruments, while highlighting the different styles and presentations of those who sing. Bass is just a bit tighter too, with a bit more impact and oomph down low. The one attribute this Audio-gd has unlike any other amplifier is a bigger sense of dynamic scale and swing. The immediacy of a violin plucked through the air. The impact as double bass cuts through the mix. It has the ability to make sudden dynamic changes stand out more than any other amplifier, consistently giving more boldness to instruments that lead. This coloration does bring some drawbacks, such as minor detail loss in lead instrument busy passages, resulting in a slightly constrained image, which the iCAN never develops.
Now, with all comparisons out of the way, a note, as just like any other reviewer, I am just a guy who likes a particular sound. It is sometimes difficult to put into words the emotions and feelings a particular piece of gear elicits within me. As although technical specifications and distortion charts make all these amplifiers look remarkably similar, I hear a distinct difference between them. Be it iCAN’s detail-revealing prowess, Liquid Carbon’s musical panache, Jazz’s neutral finesse, SA31’s vocal brilliance, or the different sound of tubes all-together, these are all distinguishing traits that usually make me buy one particular audio product over another and where individual perception and taste makes all the difference. As the golden Head-Fi saying goes, “we all hear differently” but I do think that all the amplifiers I have tested here have demonstrated their solid price to performance ratio, allowing for everyone to find their favorite pick. From the warmer LC, over the neutral iCAN/Jazz, to the brighter SA31SE, these all represent outstanding value some of the budget-friendly hidden gems have to offer and while they ain’t perfect, they all strive for greatness in different ways.
The iFi ICAN SE retails for 299$, so realistically I only expected it to compete with the Meier Audio Corda Jazz. Where this little gem proved itself and more was the ability to extract as much information from a recording as possible, without sacrificing much in the way of musicality or dynamics and throwing it all into an impressively cohesive sonic image. What’s more, it also comes in the smallest form factor of all these amplifiers, while having the power to drive virtually any headphone. In the end, it managed to compete with twice as expensive offerings without selling itself short and making itself the first choice for those who move regularly or need a modern, inexpensive yet capable device for most any home or studio use. And while the still excellent Corda Jazz holds the rank for the first amplifier to do that, iCAN now also put the SE right up there as one of the most impressive all-round budget devices that I had the pleasure to hear. Now my sole wish remains for iFi to cut back on their marketing jargon just a teeny bit…
Gain: 0dB, 12dB and 24dB (user-selectable via dip switches)
Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR): >123dB (A)
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): <0.003% (400mV/150R)
Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 500KHz (-3dB)
Output Impedance: <1 ohm
Output Power: >4000mW (16Ω)
Output Voltage: >10V (>600Ω)
Input Voltage: AC 100 – 240V, 50/60Hz
Power Consumption: < 5W idle, 12W max.
Dimensions: 158(l) x 68(w) x 28(h) mm
Weight: 216g (0.48 lbs)
Warranty: 12 months